Supreme Court Decision: ‘Cars will be Treated more like Houses’May 5th, 2009 by josh farley
A U.S. Supreme Court decision two weeks ago may have gone by with little fanfare, but its monumental impact will be felt across the country.
Arizona vs. Gant concerned a man convicted of cocaine possession. He’d been driving with a suspended license, and when arrested on suspicion of that charge, police searched his car.
As a regular reader of the county’s police reports, I can tell you that many felony cases are developed after police find a driver with a warrant, and then are able to search his or her car. They could find drugs, bundles of other people’s mail, or evidence or other criminal activity. And no crime gave the cops a chance to look inside more often than driving with a suspended license, or “DWLS” for short.
The high court — which voted in an abnormally non-partisan fashion — ruled that “Police could not reasonably have believed either that Gant could have accessed his car at the time of the search or that evidence of the offense for which he was arrested might have been found therein,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
So if police didn’t have reasonable suspicion to search Gant’s car for evidence of DWLS, they didn’t have cause at all.
Most everyone in the legal community agrees that the decision will have a huge impact. Kitsap County Prosecutor Russell Hauge told me the way in which police work will have to change in light of the decision.
So how do things change? Officers now “may search a vehicle without a warrant only when the suspect could reach for a weapon or try to destroy evidence, or when it is ‘reasonable to believe’ there is evidence in the car supporting the crime at hand,” according to a story in the Washington Post.
In effect, “Cars will be treated more like houses,” Hauge said of Gant.
What he means by that is this: officers will have to get a telephonic search warrant to get inside a vehicle, just like they do for a residence.
But that still makes a big difference. That means an officer will have to have reasonable suspicion a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed, and that the car contains evidence of it.
The more troublesome aspect of the decision, Hauge said, is if the courts decide to made the decision “retroactive.” A defendant will undoubtedly appeal his or her case — which occurred before April 2009 — somewhere in the country based on the ruling.
If a court overturns such a conviction, it means any defendant with similar issues could appeal and have theirs overturned.